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Notebook: Running backs, wide receivers looking for more

BY DANNY PAYNE | APRIL 09, 2015 5:00 AM

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Iowa assistant coaches Bobby Kennedy and Chris White spoke with the media on Wednesday before Iowa’s spring football practice. Kennedy’s wide-receiver group has four returning lettermen, while Jordan Canzeri is the only returning letterman in White’s group. Iowa is returning four specialists — which White oversees — as well.

Finding Parker

Among the position changes this spring, Jonathan Parker has moved out of the backfield and to wide receiver. The sophomore-to-be was used sparingly in the offense last season, but the Hawkeye coaching staff likes his playmaking ability.

Because Iowa’s backfield is crowded with young players, the Hawkeyes thought it best to try to harness some of his explosiveness on the outside.

“I think that’s been a good addition, not only for our group but also just for our team,” Kennedy said. “Getting him on the field and allowing him to play in different situations rather than just on the fly sweep I think will not only help that play, but also he’s got very good hands, so I’m excited to see him progress this spring.”

Much of that remains to be seen, as does Parker’s role on special teams. The St. Louis native spent a chunk of last year rated as the top kickoff returner the Big Ten but dropped off as the season progressed and finished eighth at 22.13 yards per return.

Of course, the TaxSlayer Bowl mishap when Parker threw the ball out of bounds was the culmination of this decline. However, this time around, White said he is looking for Parker to track the ball better in the air and make smarter plays — mental skills more than physical.

“I can’t tell you how important football is to him. In that play in particular …  it crushed him,” White said. “As a coach, what are you going to tell him? I’ve never seen anything like it, and probably most of you haven’t. But it was just a reaction and those experience things that he’s going to learn from.
“We haven’t lost faith him. He has more playmaking ability than most on our team.”

Solving special teams

Ask any Iowa fan about punting, and there will likely be a groan, anger, or some other negative response. That applies to both punting and punt returns.

Last year, Iowa finished last in the league with an average of 5.13 yards per return and 10th with an average of 37.83 yards per punt. That’s not good by anyone’s standards, especially not White’s.

“Clearly, probably the No. 1 thing that we need to address in this program right now is getting the punter and the whole punt deal straightened out,” White said. “We’re working hard at it, trust me on that. We’ll get it right.”

Iowa has two scholarship punters — Connor Kornbrath and Dillon Kidd — and neither was effective last year. Kornbrath averaged 37.4 yards per attempt last year. If he had qualified for the leaderboard, that mark would have been worse than Wisconsin’s Drew Meyer, the league’s worst punter by the qualifying standards of cfbstats.com. Kidd wasn’t much better, with an average of 38.5 yards per attempt — ninth in the Big Ten.

To combat this, Iowa brought kicker Marshall Koehn into the mix, along with redshirt freshman Miguel Recinos.

On punt returns, White said Riley McCarron, Desmond King, Matt VandeBerg, and Akrum Wadley are getting looks. White said he is using other coaches, specifically LeVar Woods, to help in the punt-return department.

“That’s an [un]acceptable performance, and [Kornbrath and Kidd] know it  They did not execute. Talking about preparation, execution, and I’ve got to find a way to have someone execute better in games,” White said. “The competition again is the only way to do it. We have what we have. We have four specialists in our program. One of them needs to step up and perform better on Saturdays.”

Young guns impressing

Parker wasn’t the only young player discussed Wednesday, far from it, actually. There was talk of Derrick Mitchell Jr.’s flip from wide out to running back, and by all accounts, things are going well, particularly in third-down situations.

Unsurprisingly, White said the sophomore’s hands are strong, but perhaps a bit surprising is his ability to protect the quarterback.

“He showed in the first six practices a willingness to block in protection and a willingness to learn. He’s a good learner,” White said. “… He catches the ball effortlessly, and obviously, he’s a great route runner from Coach Kennedy’s two years with him. So we’re hoping that might be a role for him.”

A few other young Hawkeyes — especially at wide receiver — could be on the field this spring and fall. Kennedy consistently brought up Andre Harris’ name when asked about potential contributors. He redshirted in 2013 and didn’t see the field last year, but judging by the way and frequency Kennedy spoke about him, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Missouri native sees the field in some capacity.

Although not at the same rate as Harris, Kennedy also spoke highly of Andrew Stone and Jay Scheel. Stone is listed behind Matt VandeBerg on the depth chart, and Scheel was highly rated coming out of Union High School last year.

“I think the constant theme this year or this spring with Coach Ferentz is, let’s see what these guys can do,” Kennedy said. “Let’s be supportive, and apply pressure on them, and see what guys can do, get them headed in the right direction.”

Depth at fullback

Along with the tight ends, perhaps Iowa’s deepest position group is fullback. The Hawkeyes have three returning lettermen in Adam Cox, John Kenny, and Macon Plewa, all three of whom have played significant time and cleared the way for ball carriers.

“Pretty sexy, isn’t it?” head coach Kirk Ferentz sarcastically asked at the beginning of Iowa’s spring practice in March.

Currently, Plewa is listed ahead of Cox on the two-deeps. Evidenced by last season, Kenny is a viable option in the running game as well should someone go down, like Cox did last fall.

“We’re a team that uses a fullback, and not many teams do, and we’re very fortunate we have three guys with a lot of playing experience,” White said. “This is a position that you don’t want to take an insurance policy out on them. They’re just battering rams.”

Follow @dannyapayne on Twitter for news, updates, and analysis about the Iowa football team.


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